Back in print
Beyond a Boundary
C L R James Serpents Tail, 267pp, £7.99
This book grows saccharine sweet with age. I first read it in 1963, preoccupied then with autobiographical detail. CLR's mother, Aunt Bessie, and my grandmother, Aunt Florie, were sisters. His grandfather was my great-grandfather, and there are many more relations and places described in this book with which I am familiar by touch, sound and smell. We travelled along similar paths over a span of 44 years. I won a college exhibition at the age of ten, taught by my father who was a headmaster, who in turn was taught by CLR at the Anglican Teacher Training College. I attended Queen's Royal College, which CLR describes so eloquently in the chapter "The Old School Tie". Here the similarity ends and his genius takes over.
Every time I read this book, there are nuggets to be discovered in a text that elevates a pre-independence Caribbean island to the level of a Greek city state, where popular sport - in this instance cricket - is central; where the close proximity between castes and classes churns out a collective philosophical approach; where the body, mind and spirit are fused into an enigmatic whole.
C L R James was a renowned Marxist. He studied Hegel and Marx to formulate his own political ideology, encapsulated in the slogan "Every Cook Can Govern". And yet, in Beyond a Boundary, he writes that "Thackeray, not Marx, bears the heaviest responsibility for me".
James took for granted British reticence and self-discipline. Without a hint of fawning before his colonial masters, he confessed to imbibing the best in the colonial tradition. But he still carved out a road of incessant rebellion: he lied, cheated, stole at times and disobeyed all those standards that would take him to an island scholarship and then to Oxford and Cambridge. And all for the game of cricket!
Cricket was in his blood. His father played, his uncles played, and he was drawn to the game as a child: "Our house was superbly situated exactly behind the wicket. A huge tree on one side and another house on the other limited the view of the ground, but an umpire could have stood at the bedroom window." It is from this vantage point that CLR views the game of cricket in the small town of Tunapuna in north Trinidad.
He describes characters, the cricket strokes and the physical surroundings with the eye of a novelist. Matthew Bondman, a ne'er-do-well, was a terror to civilised standards of behaviour, detested by the Jameses who were his landlords. But Bondman's faults were forgiven because, as CLR remembered, he could bat.
From discussing philosophy and literature, James proceeds to the game itself. And how he keeps his eye on the ball! There is one hiccup: the division of cricket along colour and class lines in the Caribbean. Jet-black James would not play for all-white Queen's Park. Although Maple harboured the brown-skinned middle class, the exceptional C L R James - scholar, writer, thinker - was welcome.
He reflects on some of the finest players ever to have graced the game, from Headley and Sobers to W G Grace and Don Bradman. Neville Cardus was florid; John Arlott was poetic; but James could not be faulted for his deep and abiding technical knowledge of the game. In vivid prose, he challenges art critics to deny cricket its place as a major art form. He returns, too, to the home of the game, in the early 1960s, to identify English cricket as being trapped in a "welfare state of mind". It still is. On the recent tour of South Africa, Nasser Hussain, the current England captain, walked to the crease, drove, pulled, hooked and cut the South African fast bowlers with ease. He raced to 50 - and then, suddenly, he must have said to himself: "This is wrong!" So he began shuffling around his crease, inhibited by what only moments before he had dominated, retreating into CLR's "welfare state of mind".
And now we have this new scourge of match-fixing and illegal betting on the game by the cricketers themselves. CLR foresaw it all, indeed warned against it 37 years ago. Not even Oliver Twist could ask for more.